The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


cities and the internet

The analogies to the internet are hard to miss, especially since this article is what finally prompted me to read this, along with this thread on the Athenaeum.

You can view the internet as a city on multiple levels. There are of course individual platforms, like the social networks, but the internet itself is also a space individuals can live in (like this website). Perhaps that's a kind of mountain man rural living, but I don't think it is. I think the internet itself is a city, but people have invented big asylums in it and trapped us all inside. (Re: h2g2).

Nadia talks about privacy. I think the ideas can also apply equally well to moderation.

I'm reading this book simultaneously with "The End of Trust", a collection by the EFF.


Slums are a pretty evocative view of our internet Giants. Their characteristic feature is overcrowding, which fits very neatly. However on the internet the relevant quality isn't space but legibility or bandwidth, the ability for people to process it. And to unslum the answer isn't just for people to move out, but to create better meaning making and organizational systems within them. These could be technological features, but because most citizens don't have the right to make those, most of the time their social structures.

didactic style

Jacobs uses a lot of contrasting anecdotes to illustrate her points, showing the effects of the projects and the contrasting it with the sidewalk life (often just blocks away, or on the other side of the street)

erosion of cities or attrition by automobiles

This is a solid example of friction creating better outcomes. perhaps a cost driven consensus model for public goods.

Annotations & Highlights


We are all very near despair. The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers

1: Introduction

This ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.
There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served

3: The uses of sidewalks: contact

The all-essential line between public service and privacy would be transgressed by insti­tutio­naliz­ati
Social key recovery vs key management services
the people of the place must enlarge their private lives if they are to have anything approaching equivalent contact with their neighbors.
Like when the only way to have a social life on the internet is to be an influencer
Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.

4: The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

Nor are sidewalks apt to be safe, even with eyes upon them, if they are bordered by a population which is constantly and rapidly turning over in residence
This is I think the biggest departure the present (and future) bring. Transent communities seem more andmore prevalent, or even desireable.
The people of cities who have other jobs and duties, and who lack, too, the training needed, cannot volunteer as teachers or registered nurses or librarians or museum guards or social workers. But at least they can, and on lively diversified sidewalks they do, supervise the incidental play of children and assimilate the children into city society. They do it in the course of carrying on their other pursuits.
In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn—if they learn it at all—the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.
Few sidewalks of this luxurious width can be found
Is there a risk to too large sidewalks?

6: The uses of city neighborhoods

As a sentimental concept, “neighborhood” is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense.
The chief function of a successful district is to mediate between the indispensable, but inherently politically powerless, street neighborhoods, and the inherently powerful city as a whole.
To accomplish these functions, an effective district has to be large enough to count as a force in the life of the city as a whole. The “ideal” neighborhood of planning theory is useless for such a role. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall. Nothing less is to any purpose.
There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and control of the money. To sound nicer, we may call these “public opinion” and “disbursement of funds,” but they are still votes and money.
The constructive factor that has been operating here meanwhile is time. Time, in cities, is the substitute for self-containment. Time, in cities, is indispensable.
Statistical people are a fiction for many reasons, one of which is that they are treated as if infinitely interchangeable.*6 Real people are unique, they invest years of their lives in significant relationships with other unique people, and are not interchangeable in the least. Severed from their relationships, they are destroyed as effective social beings—sometimes for a little while, sometimes forever.
This is a useful phrase

7: The generators of diversity

The overall pictures such methods yield are about as useful as the picture assembled by the blind men who felt the elephant and pooled their findings. The elephant lumbered on, oblivious to the notion that he was a leaf, a snake, a wall, tree trunks and a rope all somehow stuck together. Cities, being our own artifacts, enjoy less defense against solemn nonsense.
Moreover, big cities are the natural economic homes of immense numbers and ranges of small enterprises
Is this true anymore? Amazon vs bodegas, etc
1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common. 2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. 3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained. 4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

8: The need for primary mixed uses

Probably everyone is aware of certain general dependencies by a city on its heart. When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighborhood of the whole begins to suffer: People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central
All primary uses, whether offices, dwellings or concert halls, are a city’s chessmen. Those that move differently from one another must be employed in concert to accomplish much. And as in chess, a pawn can be converted to a queen. But city building has this difference from chess: The number of pieces is not fixed by the rules. If well deployed, the pieces multiply.

9: The need for small blocks

Long blocks also thwart the principle that if city mixtures of use are to be more than a fiction on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets.

10: The need for aged buildings

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.

11: The need for concentration

It is hardly possible to expect that many really different types of dwellings or their buildings can be added at any one time. To think they can be is wishful thinking. There are fashions in building. Behind the fashions lie economic and technological reasons, and these fashions exclude all but a few genuinely different possibilities in city dwelling construction at any one time.

13: The self-destruction of diversity

Unless they are handsomely financed to start with, or instantly successful (which is seldom the case), new ideas tumble into second-best locations; thereby second-best becomes first-rate, flourishes for a time, and eventually it too is destroyed by the duplication of its own greatest successes.
I doubt that we can provide for cities anything equivalent to a true feedback system, working automatically and with perfection. But I think we can accomplish much with imperfect substitutes.
In killing successful diversity combinations with money, we are employing perhaps our nearest equivalent to killing with kindness.

15: Unslumming and slumming

The foundation for unslumming is a slum lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety. The worst foundation is the dull kind of place that makes slums, instead of unmaking them.
The processes that occur in unslumming depend on the fact that a metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled (or even educated) people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.

16: Gradual money and cataclysmic money

So well do these three different kinds of money prepare the way for each other’s cataclysms that one would be impelled to admire the process, as a highly developed form of order in its own right, were it not so destructive to every other form of city order. It does not represent a “conspiracy.” It is a logical outcome of logical men guided by nonsensical but conventional city planning beliefs.
Endless suburban sprawl was made practical (and for many families was made actually mandatory) through the creation of something the United States lacked until the mid-1930’s: a national mortgage market specifically calculated to encourage suburban home building.
A few years previously, Herbert Hoover had opened the first White House Conference on Housing with a polemic against the moral inferiority of cities and a panegyric on the moral virtues of simple cottages, small towns and grass. At an opposite political pole, Rexford G. Tugwell, the federal administrator responsible for the New Deal’s Green Belt demonstration suburbs, explained, “My idea is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.”

17: Subsidizing dwellings

Even if the Utopians had had schemes that made sense socially in cities, it is wrong to set one part of the population, segregated by income, apart in its own neighborhoods with its own different scheme of community. Separate but equal makes nothing but trouble in a society where people are not taught that caste is a part of the divine order. Separate but better is an innate contradiction wherever the separateness is enforced by one form of inferiority.

18: Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles

What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles? What if we are prevented from catalyzing workable and vital cities because the practical steps needed to do so are in conflict with the practical steps demanded by erosion? There is a silver lining to everything. In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purposes indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.

19: Visual order: its limitations and possibilities

When city designers and planners try to find a design device that will express, in clear and easy fashion, the “skeleton” of city structure (expressways and promenades are current favorites for this purpose), they are on fundamentally the wrong track. A city is not put together like a mammal or a steel frame building—or even like a honeycomb or a coral. A city’s very structure consists of mixture of uses, and we get closest to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.
Substitute program for city
In terms of all human experience, these two announcements, one telling of great intensity, the other telling of endlessness, are hard to combine into a sensible whole.

21: Governing and planning districts

Routine, ruthless, wasteful, oversimplified solutions for all manner of city physical needs (let alone social and economic needs) have to be devised by administrative systems which have lost the power to comprehend, to handle and to value an infinity of vital, unique, intricate and interlocked details.

22: The kind of problem a city is

Which avenues of thinking are apt to be useful and to help yield the truth depends not on how we might prefer to think about a subject, but rather on the inherent nature of the subject itself.
A splendid summary and interpretation of this history is included in an essay on science and complexity in the 1958 Annual Report of the Rockefeller Foundation
Thus, for instance, almost nothing useful can be understood or can be done about improving city dwellings if these are considered in the abstract as “housing.” City dwellings—either existing or potential—are specific and particularized buildings always involved in differing, specific processes such as unslumming, slumming, generation of diversity, self-destruction of diversity.
It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature—apparently in sheer disbelief that we and our cities, just by virtue of being, are a legitimate part of nature too, and involved with it in much deeper and more inescapable ways than grass trimming, sunbathing, and contemplative uplift.
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